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by Michael Fine
© 2020 by Michael Fine
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
That old white man sounds righteous enough: democratic socialism, Medicare for All, college for free, and tax the rich. Tio Bernie. Not bad, on paper. And that thin white woman, that Pocahontas woman, she sounds pretty much the same, lots of big ideas and so forth, but she lectures at you like she is a school teacher, going on and on and sounding so high up and mighty. Talking about the victims. They always talk about the victims, those poor people who keep getting screwed. Like we don’t know that those poor people is us. They always talk about the middle class, like the best anybody wants is average. They never talk about the love between people, about our communities, because they just can’t remember that we exist and our communities exist to do way more than just to vote for them. They never talk about justice or democracy. All they ever talk about is themselves.
Trump is a problem and he needs to be gone. Everybody knows that. A racist and a school yard bully, who gets your goat by calling names and then will push you over one of his friends, who sneaked up behind you on hands and knees, if you ever take a swing at him. Just a liar and a cheat, but at least he doesn’t take no gruff from the high and mighty types, who think their stuff don’t stink. And he does what he says he’s going to do, even when it’s bad. He doesn’t hide behind promises that no one can keep. Or talk so that you can’t understand what he means.
Doesn’t help me much, Asoka Goh thought. I still have to make a life for myself, pay off my student loans, get a job, help my parents, look right to the community, dream some dreams, and get ahead in this crazy country. Morning to night. Seven days a week. Kids. Work. Class. Meetings. Church. Kids. Work. Class. The damn cell phone doesn’t ever quit.
And their impeachment, please tell me what that was about. Trump is a bad hombre. We all know that. They had no chance of kicking him out from the start. We all knew that too. So what did they do it for? To hear themselves talk? To look smart to themselves? To make sure we knew they are better than we are. Trump is who we live with in the street, every day of our lives. He’s not going away because you hold some hearings in Congress. And he’s not going away with one little election, even if he loses and goes off to Florida, his tail between his legs. He’s been here forever, and he’ll be here forever, regardless of who gets elected.
They don’t get that. And they don’t get they are just as much him as he is. Student loans at 6 percent. You got to take a twenty thousand dollar class to be a medical assistant and make 12 bucks an hour. Otherwise you get to work in McDonalds and make 10 bucks an hour. Their high schools don’t work, their colleges are a rip off, and you can’t buy a two family house anymore or live any kind of life on what most of us make. Let alone afford rent. Got to work a day job, a night job and a weekend job and attend to your kids, and your family and your friends and the community. Those people suck our blood just like Trump. They make money from everything we want or need. They do the advertising and the movies and whatnot. They are the lawyers and the doctors and the schoolteachers. They know all the right answers. They make plenty of money themselves. And they protest all the way to the bank. They whine and complain like they are so much better than that asshole and everyone else to boot.
And they send all them emails, asking for money. Begging for money. You think we don’t know about how that money pays the salaries of the people who send those emails, so they can just keep asking for more, talking trash about each other to get people riled up, to get people to give them more money yet? Them emails say it loud and clear: that they think they are smart and we are just dull, that we don’t know how the game is played, who the players are, and who wins and who loses in the world that they made, and we pay for?
She was more floozy than not, and Jack Montecalvo had no idea how she ended up in his bed or even what her name was, until he did. It took a minute, in the middle of the night, to turn the warm body next to him into a story, and so he didn’t touch or rub or explore until he figured it out. And then, less floozy than not. She was a good looking woman, for 50, a teacher with a wild streak, Janine. Janine Johanson, brunette once, blond now. Brown eyes once. Brilliant blue eyes now.
They had run into one another at Spikes, a sports bar in Cranston on Superbowl night. Loud place, too loud to think or talk. And who cared? No Patriots this year. They’d known one another a little for years. Truth be told, he always had a good feeling about her, a simpatico. She was Jimmy Johanson’s sister. She had a brain and a brave wild streak that didn’t care what people thought or thought of her. She’d always been out there, a question that he hadn’t yet asked.
They ended up sitting next to each other, jammed close at a table with ten other people, by accident, not design. The other people were loud and everyone in the bar was loud, cheering and moaning with each play. That’s what football is for. They talked, or tried to, just to catch up. You have to lean in close to talk in a bar that’s loud. That, and a little alcohol, and then a little too much alcohol, opens the brain to possibilities and urges not previously experienced or, perhaps, acknowledged. The Chiefs win. You dance a little. It’s a Sunday night, so you go slow because there is work the next morning. You have one or two extra to drink, in the moment. Careful now. Got to drive home. But then caution goes out the window. You feel what you feel, you want what you want, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So the black kid comes to the union hall and we have a chat. I can do that much for Janine. He’s got a good story: Indian descent. Jamaican mother, Dominican father, not together, of course. Mother comes here eight months pregnant so her baby gets to be a citizen. Grows up in South Providence and the kid survives that. Goes to Blessed Sacrament and then Central High School, and survives that. Goes to CCRI and then RIC and survives that. Works three jobs and is looking for someone to cut him a break. Three jobs! He has a degree in counseling and is working on a Master’s in Public Administration at night. One course a semester, maybe two. It will take him three years, minimum. He’s some kind of peer counselor, working for a non-profit. $18 an hour and crappy health insurance with big co-pays and a $7000 deductible. He works in a group home on weekends. $12 an hour. No benefits. Nights cleaning offices. $15 an hour, no benefits, under the table. What a chump.
The good news is that he’s not just an entitled poor black kid with an attitude. He’s just a poor black kid, trying to figure out how to survive in America. I don’t hear none of that white privilege, micro-aggression, black lives matter crap. Yeah his mother was an immigrant who came here just to make her kid an American citizen. Yeah his mother lived on welfare. Yeah he grew up on food stamps, and we all paid his way. But he’s just a kid, and he’s hustling to make ends meet. And he has three kids of his own, somehow, and he’s trying to make that work too.
So I tell him about the way it goes in the trades. About the hiring hall. About the benefits and the over-time. What real numbers look like. About all for one and one for all. You can do this, I tell him. I tell him despite myself and what’s left of my better judgment. I’ll take a little shit over this from this one and that one. But we’ll all survive.
The best thing you could say about the woman was that she was non-descript. She was thin-ish and usual, not tall, not squat, not shapely, not even really thin. Her hair was cut short and was mouse-colored – not brown, perhaps tan, not strikingly cut. It didn’t get into her eyes, which you didn’t notice, because she didn’t look directly at people, although she also didn’t look away. She wore an olive colored cloth coat and carried a large hand bag with a shoulder strap, and she came on #4 bus, walking off the steps of the bus carefully, holding the handrail so she wouldn’t stumble or slip when she stepped onto the wet pavement, still slick from the night’s rain and from the ice leftover from the night’s cold which had melted when the air warmed a little in the morning sun, which was bright and clear but not yet warm.
But the woman walked without hesitation toward a school where Asoka Goh was working as a union electrician, wiring a room in a wing of the school that was being renovated so there were outlets to plug in computers at each desk, and so there were state of the art smart white boards and huge video monitors on each wall, in order to give the students a twenty-first century learning experience, so they could learn visually and learn to function as part of teams.
The school was in an old neighborhood of Cranston, Rhode Island. Its students were the children of people from all over the world – from Cranston itself, descended from English and Irish immigrants, who had arrived before and in the years after the civil war, who had come to be yeoman farmers or factory mill hands; they were the children of people descended from Native Americans, whose ancestors had come thousands of years before in waves across the land bridge from Asia and then fanned out over two virgin continents, and had been mostly wiped out by disease or enslaved and had shrunk themselves through intermarriage or by taking small jobs so that they were almost invisible; they were the children of people who were the descendants of slaves and freeman from Africa who had remade themselves into Americans despite all the efforts of people of European descent to make them completely disappear – by violence, by exile, by imprisonment, by exclusion and by what was sometimes called benign neglect which was anything but benign; they were the children of people descended from Polish and Russian Jews who left the Pale of Settlement in the 1890s and worked in the junk business or the rag trade or worked in the mills or had little stores and saw their brothers and cousins work their way up to riches while the people who lived in Eastern Cranston, near the water, in the old houses and the old neighborhoods were left behind; children of people whose families had come from Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa in the 1850s to work as whalers out of New Bedford and Nantucket, or worked in the cranberry bogs in southeast Massachusetts and then came to work in the mills, or their cousins, from Brava and Pria who had come in the 1990s or even in 2010 directly or by way of Holland because the money was better here, because there were doctors and hospitals and schools so that coming here was a way to have a better life after all despite the cold and then snow in winter: they were the children of people from Liberia whose families had been coming here since the nineteen eighties; and they were the children of people from all over the rest of West Africa, from Mali and Nigeria and Sierra Leone; the children of people from Cambodia, both Hmong and ethnic Chinese; the children of people from Nepal and from Bhutan, of Rohingya people from Myanmar; the children of Syrian refugees from its civil war; the children of people from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico ,Guatemala and Colombia; and a sprinkling of the children of people from Brazil, Peru, and Nicaragua and other nations too numerous to count.
The woman had timed her arrival to coincide with the arrival of the students. The woman looked a little too old to be the mother of a student, but too young to be an abuela, a grandmother. The school yard was filled with students who were arriving on foot, arriving in cars, and arriving by the yellow school buses that had pulled up to the curb. The school yard rang with their energy and excitement, their teasing and singing and calling out. It was the end of winter. There were no leaves on the trees yet but the branches of the shrubs had turned red and green and budded, and were preparing to bloom. The birds had returned, and were skittering in the bushes, on the ground and amongst the naked branches of the trees overhead. A cool breeze blew in from Narragansett Bay, which was just a block and a half away.
The woman walked up the steps of the school with the crowd of entering students and passed through the open school doors, almost invisible because of her ordinariness. She and the students passed in front of the school office window, which had thick glass and a set of sign-in sheets for visitors. There was a school secretary who stood behind the window, but she was on her cell phone and was looking away, because this parade was the same parade that walked past her every day, day in and day out, always without incident.
The woman entered through the glass front doors that are normally kept locked. She passed into the entryway and turned to the right, following the crowd, and headed toward the wing where Asoka Goh waited.
Asoka Goh hadn’t begun work yet. He had come early and unloaded several spools of wire, a box of outlets and a second box of bright blue black and red connectors from his truck, and had also brought two bright yellow ladders in from the truck and leaned them against the wall. His boss, Ricky James, hadn’t yet arrived. Ricky James would show fifteen or twenty minutes late, and usually walked in with the plumber on the job, a guy named Dave, and Dave’s assistant. Jerry, the GC, didn’t usually show until eleven, and he was in and out in half an hour, though he often took longer if the work wasn’t moving. More often than not Jerry would come back at two, before everyone knocked off work for the day, just to check in and jerk everyone’s chain.
Asoka Goh was the electrician’s apprentice. He did class two nights a week, and had been at it for three years, so he was making pretty good money now. Everyone knew he was smart and able and was just biding his time. He was grateful for the work, and for the promise of more work and a better deal as time went by. He took a bunch of crap for being an apprentice, for being young, for having done college and graduate school and still ending up like the rest of these bozos, working for a living. He took more crap yet for being an immigrant kid, for having come up in Providence, and for having his kids so young, but he had a thick skin and could give as well as he could take when he had to.
But mostly Asoka just did his work and kept his mouth shut because the assholes on the job didn’t mean anything to him. They were well meaning, more or less, when they weren’t being stupid racists, but for Asoka they were just means to an end, his pathway to a master’s license. If he had been a smoker and they weren’t on a school job, Asoka would have had a cigarette right then, as soon as the ladders and wire were set up and ready to go.
He wanted to get started so they could finish early, for once. But the rules are the rules. An apprentice can’t work without the master there. So Asoka looked out the window, and thought about his own kids and their mother, walking their two older ones to school in North Providence, and Jasmin, who was trying her best to be a good mother but still often seemed like she didn’t have a brain in her head half the time and couldn’t think anything through by herself. He thought about all the shit he had to put up with, day in and day out, and how hard it was to keep his mouth shut most of the time, because whatever he said made things worse instead of better.
The non-descript woman in the olive cloth coat walked down the hall behind two girls. They were fifth graders and tall for their age but they still only came up to the woman’s shoulders. They were perfect. Just the right height.
The woman took a giant step forward, which brought her between the two girls and she grabbed both girls at the same moment, wrapping an arm around each and covering their mouths with her open hands. Then she pulled the girls into the first open door she saw, into the new wing where Asoka Goh waited, looking out the window. She pushed the girls into the room, slammed the door behind her, and pulled a knife from a scabbard that was hanging from her waist under the olive green cloth coat. She pulled both girls to her again, and then held the knife against the throats of both girls, who stood, quiet and trembling, in shock and too terrified to speak.
Asoka turned to see who had slammed the door, expecting his boss, the plumber or the GC.
Instead there was a woman holding a knife at the throats of two school girls.
It took a moment for Asoka to assemble the picture in front of him and turn it into an image that had meaning. There was a woman with a knife that she was holding at the throats of two school kids. School shooting? Only a knife not a gun. Terrorist kidnapping? A plain looking white woman. What the fuck?
The woman looked at Asoka. She saw a person of color in jeans and work boots with intelligent eyes, wearing a tool belt and a white hard hat, standing next to a yellow ladder.
The school buzzer rang, signifying the beginning of the class day.
“Good morning students and teachers,” a voice said, sizzling over a distant loudspeaker, distant because the speaker in the renovated wing had not been wired yet. It was a middle-aged woman’s voice, self confident, a little worn but still strong and cheery.
“Today is Tuesday February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Wait,” the voice said, pausing.
There were some crackling and bumping, the sound of a hand held over a microphone.
“Active shooter. Active shooter. This is not a drill,” said the voice that now trembled.
“What do you want?” Asoka said.
“For you to be out of my way,” said the woman holding the two girls, her voice crisp, calm and measured.
The girl on the woman’s left was named Tiffany. Her parents were Guatemalan and she was undocumented but no one was supposed to know that. The girl on the woman’s right was named Ashley. Her mother worked in a bank and her father was in jail but no one was supposed to know that either. She played soccer in the afternoons in the spring and the fall and liked to watch tennis on TV.
“What are you going to do?” Asoka said.
“Sacrifice the lambs and paint blood on the lintels so the Lord will pass over the houses of the just when he comes to annihilate the first born of the heathens. Old Pharaoh! Let my people go,” the woman said.
“You crazy,” Asoka said.
“Not as crazy as you. Not as crazy as Sodom and Gomorrah where men and women have their way with each other in the street, where the widow and the orphan are cast out. The moneychangers are now in possession of the temple. Their computers sell children into harlotry. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” the woman said. She raised the knife above the throats of the terrified girls, who began to whimper, not understanding a word of what the woman said but smelling her madness.
“Wait!” Asoka said. ‘What’s your name?” he asked in a voice from his past, when he had been a chump but studied people and their emotions.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” the woman said. She looked in Asoka’s direction but she looked past him, at a voice that came from a faraway place.
Engage, said a voice in Asoka’s head, a voice from something he knew or read long ago. Enter the delusion.
“What does the Lord call you? “ Asoka said.
“The Lord calls me to do justice!” the woman said.
“With what name does the Lord call you to justice?” Asoka said. He had been good at this, once.
The woman looked at Asoka for the first time.
“I am Miriam, sister of Moses,” the woman said. She looked at Asoka and looked through him at once, as though she was seeing through him and into another world.
Engage. Empathize. Options. Hard to believe any of that crap was worth anything but it was still there, stuck in the back of Asoka’s brain.
“Miriam Glory to God that you are here!” Asoka said.
“Glory to God!” the woman said.
“I’m with you, girls,” Asoka said. “It’s all good. Tell us your names.”
“They are lambs!” Miriam screamed. “Put down your staff, infidel! I know your tricks and your magic.”
Asoka knelt slowly. He put his coffee cup on the floor.
“I have no staff, sister,” he said. The he stood up again slowly, his eyes on the knife, with the girls between him, the woman and the knife.
Miriam was looking through Asoka again, not at him.
The hallucination had her. Organize the ego. Now. Keep her in the present. Otherwise the hallucination owns her and can strike like a pit viper without warning.
“Glory to God!” Asoka said.
“Glory to God in the highest!” Miriam said.
There was a siren. God alone knew what sirens, flashing lights and uniforms would do to this madwoman.
“God says let my people go!” Asoka said.
“Go down Moses!” Miriam said.
“Let my people go!” Asoka said.
“We will kill the Pascal lamb and smear the blood on the doorways of God’s chosen people!” Miriam said.
A puddle formed at the feet of one of the girls.
Red and blue lights came through the window behind Asoka and washed the room.
Asoka imagined a swat team getting in position.
“Abraham! Abraham!” Asoka said, buying, now praying for time.
“Here I am!” Miriam said.
Suddenly Asoka realized that he was between the window, Miriam and the girls. He was a black man. She was a white woman. And that this was still America. You got to play the cards you’re dealt.
“Don’t lay your hand on the boy! Don’t do anything to him! For now I know that you are a man who fears God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” Asoka said.
Miriam stared at Asoka for an instant, dazed.
A pinpoint of red light flicked from the wall to the yellow ladder to the arm holding the knife, and then it disappeared.
Then, without warming, as the red dot found the back of his head, Asoka dropped to his knees.
There a loud single crack, the sound of a hand slapping a face.
The knife clattered to the floor, and Miriam fell backward, twisting as she fell. The girls fell forward.
The bullet intended for Asoka hit the knife, not the girls.
God is good after all.
Asoka kicked the knife across the room and covered the uninjured bodies of the girls with his own body, because this is still America, and you never know what’s going to happen next.
Men and women wearing hermits and body armor poured into the room.
Maybe there is a god after all, Asoka thought.
They had Asoka and Miriam spread-eagled on the floor in one half second, and they bundled the girls out of the room. Faster than a speeding bullet. And who, dressed as a mild mannered reporter. Like the headlight on a southbound train.
Nothing much mattered after that.
The world being what it is, it took three days for the police to figure out that Asoka was what he said he was. Just a man. Not involved. No terrorist.
Didn’t take them ten seconds to figure out that Miriam, or whoever she was, was crazy as a loon. You would have thought the moment words came out of her mouth, the police would have figured out that Asoka wasn’t involved at all, except for being in the wrong place at the right time, and that he had saved those little girls lives. You would have thought they made a hero out of him. But they had to do their due diligence, and by the time those police put two and two together, the world had moved on.
The truth doesn’t matter much. The people on television and whatnot, they have big ideas and make big promises. But they must know they can’t deliver on any of it. It’s just play acting, all makeup and lights, not real life.
But they want us to show up and vote anyway. For who? For what? It’s about them, not us.
We are the deplorables, the disposables, the deniables. Who do they think they are fooling?
But we do get fooled again. Every single time.
A man does what he has to do, and disregards the rest. Lie la lie lie lie lie.
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Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.
He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.
He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.
Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.